Recognizing your husband's midlife strugglesWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Movies and TV shows never tire of serving up the stereotype of the troubled middle-aged male. He’s the character who suddenly checks out of a decades-long career, buys a sports car and takes off on a cross-country road trip to "find himself."
You may readily recognize the stereotype, but how much do you really know about the inner doubts and fears men struggle with in midlife? Are you aware of the issues your husband might wrestle with in the future – or that he may already be trying to deal with?
It’s normal for men to enter a period of deep introspection and re-evaluation of their life somewhere between the ages 45 and 60. Although it’s a passing phase, it’s usually a long one, lasting for months or even up to five years. Some men experience relatively little angst, while for others, the confusion and inner turmoil ushered in by midlife is a thoroughly wretched experience.
Almost universally, men find it extremely difficult to talk about what they’re going through. The issues they’re wrestling with are too personal, too threatening, too loaded with shame.
That leaves many wives bewildered by the changes they observe in their husband. Wives find themselves wondering:
Why is he suddenly spending so much time at the gym?
Why is he making excuses to avoid going to Bible study?
What’s all this complaining about the job he’s loved for years?
Why, all of a sudden, has he become so selfish? So over-sensitive? So irritable?
Why does he keep muttering that no one appreciates him?
Who stole my sociable husband and replaced him with this withdrawn grump? When will my real husband return?
For some wives, the changes she notices in her husband are not just mystifying, but downright hurtful to her. Suddenly, it seems, she can’t do anything to please him. He complains she’s too nagging, too overbearing, so he needs to be alone. Once clearly happy with their marriage, he now claims their marriage is "dull." He may even drop veiled hints that his sexual desire for her is waning.
Why is her hero in such a funk? And why won’t he talk about what’s really troubling him?
Shaken to the core of his manhood
Often – but not always – a man’s midlife upheaval is kicked off by early signs of aging: his first grey hairs, the noticeable decline in muscle mass, his expanding waistline. He may sense his strength and stamina beginning to decline, and some men start to feel a decrease in their sex drive.
For a man, the physical changes he observes in the mirror and feels in his body are not just a warning shot about aging. The realization that his "manliness" is on the wane is more like hearing, for the first time, that he has a terminal illness. He knows he’s still a long way from expiring, but he’s already concerned that his quality of life will never be the same again. From this point on, he imagines it all in decline: his sex life, his performance at work, the gradual whittling away of the physical activities he enjoys. Suddenly, he has a lot to worry about.
His new and profound anxieties, however, are impossible to talk about it. What guy wants to admit to anyone that he’s feeling "less of a man" these days?
Taken by surprise
The unwelcome physical changes he sees in the mirror rock a midlife man’s world, but it’s hard for his wife to see the tremors at first – or to sympathize.
For us, as women, adjusting to change is a recurring theme in our lives. We face continuing change in our bodies from early pregnancy to post childbirth. We reinvent ourselves from working woman to stay-at-home-mom. Then later, perhaps, we reinvent ourselves again to re-enter the workforce. The hot flashes, sleeping problems and mood swings of menopause signal yet another change.
In comparison to women, men’s lives remain relatively stable – right up until they hit midlife. By then, it’s been many years since adolescence, the last time they had to re-evaluate who they are in the face of major biological and psychological upheavals.
And unlike women’s hormones – famous for sticking around until midlife, then fleeing from the party like Cinderella – men’s most important "masculine" hormone makes a slow and stealthy retreat. Pointing this out in their book, Manopause, Lisa Friedman Bloch and Kathy Kirtland Silverman quote a 2007 Newsweek article by Daniel D. Federman, M.D., and Geoffrey A. Walford, M.D., both of Harvard Medical School:
"Levels of a man’s main sex hormone, testosterone, begin to drop as early as the age of thirty . . . the testosterone levels drop very slightly (about one percent) each year – for the rest of his life. . . . this change is so gradual that many men may not notice any effects until several decades have gone by. Yet, by 50, 10 percent of all U.S. men have low levels of testosterone."
In the grip of troubling emotions
Falling levels of testosterone can impact a male emotionally as well as physically. The first signal that a man is approaching midlife might not be a change he can see in the mirror; it might be just a slow slide into an increasingly gloomy mood that he doesn’t understand and can’t seem to shake off.
"Since their lower testosterone levels have ‘snuck up on them’ over decades," write Bloch and Silverman, "men often find themselves confused, even totally stymied, by inexplicable changes in the way they feel, both physically and mentally. At some point, they may find themselves wondering, What happened? Where did this de-energized and unwelcome feeling come from?"
The "unwelcome feelings" that can overtake a middle-aged man are many. To his wife, he may seem restless, angry or adrift from personal values. Underneath though, he might be wrestling with any one of these troubling emotions that are common in midlife men. He might be feeling:
Dissatisfied – A general feeling of discontent seems to have settled over his whole life. All he knows is that he’s "bored" or "not happy anymore."
Suffocated – After years of ignoring his own dreams and desires to provide for his family, he’s frustrated that there’s never time or money to pursue the things he wants to do. He’s hankering for a new, exciting adventure.
Discouraged – The mis-match between the lofty goals he had in his younger years, compared to what he’s actually achieved to date, hammers away at his self-esteem. He’s disappointed in himself, and he’s sure his wife is disappointed in him too.
Apprehensive – The prospect of a decline in his sexual performance in the years ahead fills him with dread. If he’s not well informed, he imagines the worst. At work, he’s worried they’ll promote that young hot shot over him – "the old guy" – or that his age will flag him for the next round of layoffs.
Overwhelmed – The carefree days he was hoping to glimpse just ahead seem more out of reach than ever. Instead, circumstances outside his control keep adding to his burdens. Perhaps his aging parents are needing more of his time and energy; perhaps his oldest daughter has moved back in, bringing with her grandkids but no husband.
Doubting – From his bleak vantage point, it feels like God has reneged on His promises. The life he’s living doesn’t look anything like the "abundant life" he had expected to be enjoying by now.
Resentful – He feels he’s not receiving the rewards and recognition he deserves for all he’s invested in his career. Or he may feel "stuck" in a marriage that seems to offer more frustration than fulfilment. In this state of mind, he’ll likely have an exaggerated view of the weaknesses in his relationship with his wife, tending to forget their good times together, but remembering times of friction.
How wives can help
If you’re alert to the signs that your husband may be entering his midlife adjustment, you’ll be well positioned to help make it smoother sailing for you both. You’d be wise to read much more about this stage of life, but in the meantime, here are a few ways you can help him:
Heap extra encouragement on your husband, always remembering that, now more than ever, he’s especially sensitive and vulnerable to criticism of his abilities, performance and value. Consider carefully how he might perceive even casual comments you make. Are you conveying the message, In my eyes, you’re a success, or does he hear, You’re a disappointment?
Purge yourself of lingering resentment over decisions made in the past. You may think you haven’t said anything aloud, but if you’re nursing grudges or keeping score of his past failures, be assured, your husband knows it. Perhaps, for example, he once made a bad investment or had some other setback that forced you to sell the home you loved. "You may need to find ways to resolve the tension issues like this can create," says Wendy Kittlitz, vice-president of Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling ministry. "You may need to seek a professional counsellor to help you get past your disappointments, so they don’t continue to intrude on your relationship."
Keep a spirit of optimism about your future together. Show your continued confidence in the Lord, even if your husband’s faith seems to be growing shaky. Have encouraging reading on hand, such as Bruce Peppin’s The Best Is Yet To Be – a great book to help midlife men get past real or perceived failures and lingering disappointment with God.
Sprinkle your blessing on his dreams. Let him know you’re serious about exploring with him how he might, at last, make them a reality. Does he want to pursue his pilot’s licence? Does he need to make a career change? Throw out your calendar and build a new one that gives high priority to hobbies and interests that recharge him.
Make it clear he’s just as sexually appealing to you as ever. Keep putting effort into your appearance, letting him know you got that new hairstyle or new lingerie "just for him." "Be willing to initiate a discussion about your changing sexuality," says Kittlitz. "Do a bit of homework and broach the subject before it becomes uncomfortable." Let your husband know that you expect to take changes in your sexual relationship in stride – just as you’ve already had to make many other adjustments as a couple, over the years, in other areas of your relationship.
- Allow him the time he needs to build friendships with other men. Encourage him to bring a few godly, older men whom he respects into his inner circle, since sound advice from someone who’s "been there" can relieve a great deal of anxiety. Joining or starting a men’s Bible study or prayer group can help him foster natural friendships – or joining a volunteer group or ministry run by men is another good option.
There’s no denying that midlife can be a difficult season for some couples. "Try to remember that it’s just that – a season," says Kittlitz. "Keeping this perspective will help you not become overwhelmed while you are in the midst of it." Slowly, men adjust to this new phase, the start of the second half of life. They discover that their inner emotional storm is abating and that they – and their spouse – still have much to look forward to.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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